People First Through the Pandemic

As pandemic-driven consumers have flocked to grocery stores at record rates, Ocean Spray has pivoted, adjusting its business operations to meet demand. The world’s leading producer of cranberry juices, juice drinks and dried cranberries leaned on the exceptional efforts of many people in its orbit, most notably its team members on the front lines.

The operations and finance teams responded to heightened product demand by carefully adjusting and planning, and frontline manufacturing teams devoted themselves to keeping grocery shelves stocked. The cooperative recognized their dedication with a $1.50-per-hour wage increase for operational hourly employees on the frontlines, as well as an extra week of vacation from March to July for salaried manufacturing team members.

“Ocean Spray was founded by three cranberry farmers on the principle that we are stronger when we are working together,” said Tom Hayes, president and CEO of the 90-year-old agricultural cooperative. Where Ocean Spray really grew and adjusted the most throughout a turbulent 2020, Hayes said, was in innovation. The cooperative, which includes 700 small family farms and employs more than 2,000 people worldwide, had to rethink several product launches.

Our frontline manufacturing teams worked extremely hard to keep grocery shalves stocked and families fed.

– Tom Hayes, President & CEO, Ocean Spray

“We reframed everything with the idea of care first. People first. Each other first,” said Hayes. “We made sure that every aspect of our new launches had an impactful social cause tied to it.” Ocean Spray’s Atoka brand, for example, worked with the #FirstRespondersFirst initiative to provide herbal tonics and wellness shots to first responders in New York, D.C., and Seattle.

Significantly, Ocean Spray in 2020 became the first major fruit cooperative to achieve sustainably-grown verification for its cranberries. Working with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) platform, the cooperative verified its members’ farms against 112 standards, from the way they treat their soil, to water practices, to the care of any animals on the farms. And Ocean Spray continues to expand into the health and wellness space, launching its Lighthouse Incubator in Boston to accelerate innovation and new products. The Akota line is one result; another is CarryOn, the co-op’s first CBD beverage.

“Innovation is crucial at this time for food companies because the pandemic has really shined a light on the critical importance of food to our national security,” Hayes said. “Innovation allows food companies to quickly adapt to situations and make sure that grocery shelves stay stocked and families stay fed.”

This innovation has been supported by the “grounding and steadiness” of CoBank’s business relationship, Hayes said. “In times as fluid as these, to know CoBank was unwavering was—and is—priceless,” Hayes said. “We thank our CoBank partners for their continued dedication and belief in us and our farmers.”